Ask a Health Coach: Hunger Cues, Cravings, and Control
Hi folks! PHCI Coaching and Curriculum Director, Erin Power is here for another round of Ask a Health Coach. Today, she’ll be answering your questions about managing hunger, conquering cravings, and why you shouldn’t have to force healthy eating habits. We love getting your questions, so keep them coming over in our Mark’s Daily Apple Facebook Group or in the comments below.
“Now that I’m back to the gym I’ve upped my calories to 2000, but I’m always hungry. Carbs are 100g. Protein is 150g. Fat is 111g. Am I doing something wrong?”
I have a lot of opinions about calorie counting, macro tracking, and anything that resembles typical, fussy diet culture. I’m not going to lie: it makes my eyes glaze over a bit! It can certainly offer up a realistic snapshot of how your nutrition is/isn’t serving you, but in my practice, I find that it can sometimes do more harm than good. People become so fixated on their calorie intake, their macro split, or the number on the scale, that it robs them of the joy in life, takes up way too much mental energy, and disconnects us from our intuition. Which is too bad, because my guess is you’re doing this to feel better, healthier, and happier.
You might be so consumed with searching for the thing you think you should be doing, that you’ve lost sight of what your body actually needs. And it’s no surprise seeing as everything about our culture teaches us to ignore our body’s signals. Feeling tired? Pour another cup of coffee. Drained emotionally? Push yourself anyway. Always hungry? Rack your brain trying to figure out why.
I can’t help but feel that this is, at best, impolite and, at worst, a quasi-dysfunctional relationship with our amazing bodies, and their elegant signalling systems.
Why Am I Always Hungry?
You can make this as complicated as you want, and you can always take a deeper dive into the subject, but in my experience, constant hunger is typically triggered by one of four things. And with a little trial and error it’s quite easy to figure out. Start by asking yourself:
- Do I feel hungrier when I eat more carbs?
- Do I feel less hungry when I eat more protein and fat?
- How are my stress levels and my sleep?
- Do I just need to eat more food?
I realized you’ve already increased your calories, but what if you needed to increase them even more? If you’ve been relatively sedentary for the past 18 months and are now back to crushing it at the gym, your metabolic needs have shifted. And there’s no rulebook that says 2000 calories should be your cap.
Also, it’s been proven that certain carbs are responsible for knocking out the neurons responsible for hunger suppression, so that could be a factor — especially if they’re coming in the form of processed health foods.1 And protein and fat are well documented when it comes to increasing satiety, so keep that in mind when playing around with your macro split if that’s the road you choose to follow.2
What Do Stress and Sleep Have to Do with Hunger?
Two of the biggest, most unsung needle-movers though (on hunger levels and health in general) are stress and sleep. Short-term stress, like a tough gym session or a hard day at work, can decrease your appetite as your adrenal glands pump out epinephrine, briefly putting hunger on hold. When stress becomes chronic, your adrenal glands switch gears and start releasing cortisol (also called the fat storage hormone), which increases appetite and makes you feel hungrier, often for less-than-healthy foods.3 And if you’re not getting a good night’s sleep, you’ll also be triggering more ghrelin and less leptin, two more hormones that can add to your hunger pangs.4
It’s all about paying attention to your internal cues, so, take a sec to slow down and reconnect with what your body is trying to tell you. Adjust your macros if that feels right to you; manage your stress and quality of sleep; and respect and trust your body enough to simply eat more food if you feel hungry.
“It’s my first week of following a primal diet and I already caved and had a gluten-free pizza. What’s the best way to handle cravings?”
When the world is loading up on cheesy, doughy dinners it can be hard to resist. It’s also tough if pizza has been your go-to “joy-bringer” meal for years. Processed convenience foods are woven into nearly every aspect of our culture and deciding that you want to take a different path can have its share of challenges.
I’ve found that cravings are half physiological, and half psychological. Try to connect the dots between what you’re feeling when your cravings come on. Does your willpower start to wane after a stressful day? When you don’t eat enough protein? When you feel anxious or deprived? When you’re dealing with self-doubt?
As a health coach, I’ve helped hundreds of clients conquer their cravings. And you can do it too, on three conditions…
- You stop being so quick to judge yourself.
If you’ve never followed a primal diet before, what makes you think you’ll knock it out of the park in the first week? Be open to letting go of any all-or-nothing, perfectionist tendencies (which haven’t worked thus far), and try a little self-compassion on for size. So what if you had pizza? Make sure your next meal is primally-aligned and leave the past in the past.
- You treat yourself with more kindness.
Shame and guilt aren’t the best motivators. In my private practice and with my health coaching students and graduates in the Primal Health Coach Institute, I talk a lot about Toward Motivation and Away from Motivation. While the former is designed to spark positive, uplifting feelings that pull you closer to the things you want, the latter tends to be fueled by negative emotions, leaving you stewing over the things you did wrong and wondering why you can’t get it right.
- You commit to being patient.
Any kind of habit change takes time, whether it’s flossing your teeth more, scrolling your social media feed less, or grilling a ribeye and veggies instead of ordering takeout the second you feel hungry. You’re in the process of reprogramming your neural pathways, and the more times you repeat a desired action, the more it will become an automatic behaviour.5
Anything worth doing, is worth doing well, so ditch the self-judgement, have patience, and commit to treating yourself with more kindness and compassion. You deserve it.
“My 80/20 plan has become more of a 50/50 plan because I have a lot of stressful stuff going on at work and at home. I’m trying to control my diet, but end up eating out more than I should. Any tips for reeling my eating habits back in?”
Maybe you’ve noticed that the more you try, the harder it feels. The more you force a situation, the more it pushes back. I’m not saying everything should come easy, but there’s something that doesn’t sit right with me about our society’s tendency to micromanage every aspect of life.
Strictly controlling your eating habits seem to backfire for most people more than it “works.” At the very least, it makes you miserable in the process. After all, how much fun is it to go out to eat when you’re criticizing yourself for not cooking at home? My personal goal — and the goal I have for all the folks I work with — is to achieve an effortless relationship with food.
Food Rules are Too Fussy
The Primal Blueprint’s 80/20 guidelines work for a lot of people. But for some, the nutrition portion becomes the holy grail of rules that causes more struggle than it’s worth. If being hard on yourself worked, it would have worked by now. If beating yourself up every time you took a spin through the drive through versus firing up the grill was an awesome motivator, we wouldn’t be here right now discussing this.
Instead of forcing the situation, tune into why you want to reel in your diet in the first place. Does following an 80/20 plan make you feel energetic and alive? Or does it provide the external validation that you’re doing something “right?”
How To Find Your Why
I feel like I beat this drum too much sometimes, but tapping into your why (your deep-down reason for wanting something) is going to give you the biggest bang for your buck, metabolically speaking.
This is a tool I use with my health coaching clients to help them get clear on their true motivating factors for change. It’s an exercise called Whyx5 and all you have to do is ask yourself WHY five times. Ask:
- Why is this important to me?
- Why does that matter?
- What is that important?
- Why would that be great to achieve?
I say this after 25+ years in the hardcore fitness industry, not to mention 10 years in the military: Control won’t get most of us mere mortals very far, but figuring out the real reason you want to reel back in your diet? That’s where the serious magic happens.
What about you? Got anything to add?
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